Recovery Academy finds path to expand based on beneficial results



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Mike Roaleen, the founder and director of Recovery Academy in Heartside, says that during his years of social work it was heart-breaking to see people struggle with the question, “What is it about yourself that you are thankful for?”

“Every year you have to do a person-centered plan, and ask people, ‘What are your strengths and what are you good at it?’ I was not surprised, but was alarmed at the number of people who couldn’t think of anything. They’d say, ‘I’m unemployed, I don’t have a house a wife, kids...’ You’d have to prompt them, and eventually they’d find something, but it was hard,” Roaleen says.

About ten years ago, he and friend Steve Harrington, who was associated with Boston University’s Center for Psychosocial Rehabilitation, were discussing the idea that everyone talked about recovery from addiction and other difficulties, but no one focused on the “how” of it. Roaleen ran with the idea, the two made a proposal to Network 180, and in 2008 Recovery Academy was born.

Roaleen — whose last name is a hybrid of his birth name, Roach, and that of his wife of 26 years, Aleen — freely admits that he has suffered from mental illness and addiction himself.

In fact, that is one of the keys to the success of Recovery Academy. All of the teachers and people employed there have mental disabilities and/or are in recovery from addictions.

“All of the people currently working for me were students at one time. That’s where I get teachers and other employees. I get to know them, I work with them, and then offer them a job,” Roaleen says. “Here, it’s peer-to-peer counseling, and our lived experience is helpful in both large and small ways.”

Roaleen’s background includes working at a variety of jobs before, during, and after graduating from Thomas Jefferson College at Grand Valley State University. He was a janitor, served on a union board, and worked in a factory before starting in residential mental health.

Over the next 40 years, there was no turning back, especially after he worked for Harbinger, an agency in Grand Rapids focused on Assertive Community Treatment (ACT).

Sometimes called PACT, after the program in Madison, Wisc., that pioneered the concept, ACT is an intensive approach to serving people with severe mental illness who are at risk for homelessness, psychiatric crises requiring hospitalization, and run-ins with the criminal justice system. Harbinger is recognized as the first successful replication effort, and its outcomes have been studied in-depth by professors at Grand Valley.

“We worked with people who were difficult to engage, in a lot of cases people who were coming out of state institutions such as the one in Kalamazoo. People who wouldn’t be able to keep their appointments, for example, who needed more personal one-on-one help,” says Roaleen.

ACT requires smaller social worker caseloads and an individualized “person-centered” philosophy, but Roaleen feels one of ACT’s greatest assets is the team approach it encourages.

“Mental health work is founded on trust,” he explains. “In traditional case management you have just one contact, so if that person leaves, the person with mental health issues has to reconnect. But if you use a team approach, the person will have already established trust with other members of the team. It’s a highly successful though expensive form of treatment.”

Recovery Academy primarily functions through classes, which are highly interactive and discussion-oriented, helping students to acquire such skills as goal-setting and planning; and support groups, including DBT (further honing of Dialectical Behavior Therapy skills), Dual Recovery, Peer Art Study, and a new one specifically aimed at those re-entering society from prison.

All of these services are free, which means that the organization has to find funding for all that it does. When state funding cuts caused Network 180 to discontinue support in 2014, Robert Grooters of Grooters Development stepped in, and arranged for Doug Meijer and the Meijer Foundation to contribute.

“Frankly that’s been a godsend, and I can’t praise Doug Meijer enough. It’s been great so far not to have to find grant money, and we’re very thankful to both of them.

“I don’t have all the state and local governmental paperwork hoops to jump through,” he adds. “As a social worker, I probably spent 30% of my time doing paperwork.”

Recovery Academy has just received its 501(c)(3) status, so Roaleen intends to add grant-writer to the many roles he plays.

He would, of course, welcome volunteer help with that, but he says his biggest goal right now is to find a larger place for the academy. The space on Oakes Street has been fine up until now, but there is only one classroom and it is small.

“The smaller size causes a lot of the student to feel anxious,” Roaleen says. “If they need to come in late, a lot of times they just turn back.”

Another less tangible wish-list item for Roaleen is “to see an impact on the public’s perception of people with mental illness and addiction.”

He acknowledges that there is change in the making (see article below), but knows it will take time.

Roaleen would also like to develop a set or realistic measures for success. “We’ve really had quite a bit of success,” he says. “For some people, it’s getting their own apartment, some it’s going a year without being in the psych hospital, and we’ve had a lot of good outcomes. But the problem is, it takes time, and we have to work on understanding that.”